Today, 20 years later, the Bulgarian documentary wave described at the beginning of this text is a thing of the past. But the interest in documentaries is still alive and well. Many of the people who were part of this wave have entered or are entering new territories.
In the fall of 2005, as a journalist working for one of the major Bulgarian weekly newspapers, I was sent to do an interview with director Andrey Paounov. The editor-in-chief described him as "a young filmmaker who made a film about a madhouse that won many awards." To be honest, I didn't know much about Andrey back then, but I had seen Georgi and the Butterflies and accepted the assignment with enthusiasm. The interview lasted several hours, during which we we changed locations several time. We talked about all kinds of things – about Hitchcock and Truffaut, his stints as a gardener in Toronto and a chef in Washington, about his first film Lucy Tsak Tsak and, of course, the Home for adults with intellectual disabilities in Podgumer, where Georgi and the Butterflies takes place. At the time, I had no idea that my meeting with Andrey would be the reason I started making documentaries a few years later. But that's a different story…
Georgi and the Butterflies (2004) was the crest of a wave that had first emerged a few years earlier with films such as Life is Beautiful, Isn't It? (2001) and The Merry Boys (2002) by Svetoslav Draganov. Bulgarian documentary cinema became something people talked about and considered significant. The success of Georgi and the Butterflies coincided with a resurgence of interest in documentary cinema worldwide. In 2004, the year the film won the Silver Wolf Award at the prestigious Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival, Michael Moore's investigation into the Bush administration Fahrenheit 9/11 became the first documentary to win the Palme d'Or in Cannes since The Silent World(1956) by Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle.
Jordan Todorov, photo: Personal archive
Documentary cinema became narrower in focus, but also more creative in its storytelling. In the Oscar-nominated Super Size Me (2004), director Morgan Spurlock followed a McDonald's hamburger diet to illustrate the harms of the fast food industry. In the Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels (2004), director Zana Brisky distributed cameras to the children of prostitutes working in Calcutta and thus ended up with material she would not have been able to capture on her own. It turned out that what's important is not just the story, but also the way it is told.
One of the most worn-out clichés is that truth is stranger than reality. In recent years, this quote from Byron's Don Juan has taken on a new meaning thanks to documentary cinema. The line between fact and fiction has become increasingly blurred, and today it's very common for films to compete in the same category regardless of their genre.
For example, the North Macedonian Honeyland (2019) became the first film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary and Best International Film at the same time. What's more, film festivals like True/False in Columbia, Missouri, question and even redefine the concept of the documentary film. By the way, the line between feature and documentary cinema has always been blurred. British director John Grierson, who first used the term "documentary" in the 1930s, described the genre as a "creative treatment of reality."
Jordan Todorov, photo: Personal archive
And really – is a completely objective, "uncreative" approach to reality even possible? The question of the "creative treatment of reality" is at the heart of the scandal surrounding the German documentary Lovemobil (2019), which tells the story of several sex workers who work in tourist caravans. Director Elke Lehrenkrauss's film, whose stylized, neon aesthetic echoes Michael Glawogger's Whores' Glory (2011), won many prestigious awards in Germany. As it later turned out, a large part of the film was scripted and used professional actors.
The streaming era also changed the nature of documentaries. Shooting can often take years. But today, driven by competition for up-to-date content, the major streaming platforms, which have sufficient funds and their own studios, are producing documentaries in record time. The Netflix miniseries Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Richaired just nine months after Epstein's death (an American investor convicted of sex trafficking and close to Donald Trump - ed. note). Unfortunately, short shooting times are often associated with compromises in quality. Thus, many of the modern documentary productions, despite their well-constructed narrative arcs and well-developed characters, look like an extended version of the popular 60 Minutes format.
The world will always need documentaries that don't just tell an intriguing story, but act as a call for change. Sophia Tzavella's HBO film Paradise Hotel is as much a lyrical tale of life "in the gutter" as it is a study of why Roma socialization and integration failed during late socialism and the period of transition. Paradise Hotel changed the lives of hundreds of people after the demolition of the dangerous Block 20 in Yambol, which is the main setting of the film. In other cases, documentaries can bring belated justice. After an accidental off-screen line during the filming of the HBO miniseriesThe Jinx (2015), billionaire Robert Durst was brought before a court and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his girlfriend in 2001. Durst died in prison earlier this year aged 78.
Today, 20 years later, the Bulgarian documentary wave described at the beginning of this text is a thing of the past. But the interest in documentaries is still alive and well. Many of the people who were part of this wave have entered or are entering new territories. At this year's Sofia Film Fest, audiences will see the feature debuts of three directors who began their careers in documentary cinema – Andrey Paounov, Svetoslav Draganov and Tonislav Hristov. In one of his recent interviews with Kino magazine accompanying the release of his new film January, Paounov states: "When someone tells me how things are done, I usually get up and leave." People who know Andrey know that this captures how all of his films have been made so far. In other words – in both documentary filmmaking, and cinema more generally, there are no recipes at all.
Jordan Todorov is a journalist, documentary director, film critic and translator from German. He currently lives in Berlin. Todorov is the producer of Plamen (2015), a film about Plamen Goranov whose death by self-immolation was an act of protest, director of the films Concrete Pharaohs (2010), which focuses on the Kalderash Roma community in Bulgaria, and Dad Made Dirty Movies (2011) about the erotic film director Stephen C. Apostolof, who was born in Burgas and fled to the USA during totalitarianism, as well as co-writer of a biography of Apostolof (2020).
Shortly before their exhibition in Sofia, the duo tell us how they go about getting to know the unknown from Kosovo to Turkey via Bulgaria.
Benjamin Sasse, founder of the cult Meadows in the Mountains, talks about the development of the festival in the last decade and why "the mountain is safe for everyone"
How K-pop became a global phenomenon, why the Bulgarian dance community is one of the largest in Europe, and the fans for whom this is a way of life